I’m sure you’ve heard it or said it yourself: “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Please stop.
This statement has good intentions.
I have a personal relationship with Christ and don’t just go through the motions in religious rituals.
But to say that Christianity isn’t a religion?
There are two simple ways to prove that it is a religion:
1. The Bible.
James 1:26-27 is the only proof you need:1
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Bible uses the word ‘religion’ here to talk about pleasing God with your life.
Christianity = religion. Case. Closed.
2. The Dictionary.
If you want more proof, this time from the school of common sense, here are two definitions Merriam-Webster2 gives to ‘religion’:
- “the service and worship of God or the supernatural”
- “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance”
Don’t both sound like true Christianity? Yes, they do.
Even though saying “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship” isn’t totally true, there is some truth in it. Many hate the rote ritualism and empty ceremonies a lot of churches and faiths offer—and that’s good. Jesus hated it too!
Jesus frequently called out the empty religion, man-made laws, and the blatant hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus told the Pharisees they did a lot of external small things right, but totally missed the point of more important things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
So much religion today misses the point as well. A church attendee cares more about an afternoon football game than encountering the living God during service. A pastor wants to be liked by his community and congregation more than he cares about serving God and ministering His Word. Church members care more about the color of the lobby carpet than reaching out to neighbors with the gospel. Unfortunately, you could probably pile on dozens of more examples.
There has to be a better way.
Thankfully, there is.
Religion that Doesn’t Miss the Point
Religion is worthless if it doesn’t lead to the right belief and action. (See James 1:26-27 above.)
- True biblical religion prays not to earn God’s approval or check off a box, but in response to God’s gracious approval in Christ.
- True biblical religion knows faith without works is dead (James 2:14-17) and that anything done without love is a waste of time (1 Corinthians 13).
- True biblical religion sees the church as a rehab center for recovering sinners whose faith in Jesus encourages them to use their gifts to build up the whole.
- True biblical religion knows that the purpose of biblical information is life transformation.
- True, biblical religion genuinely loves God and others (Matthew 22:37-39).
The next time you’re tempted to say, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship”—hold your tongue. You’re not only wrong, you may sound dumb3, and will miss a chance to share what you wanted to communicate all along:
Christianity isn’t a dead religion of boredom at church, life as a hypocrite, and trying to be better than everyone else. It’s having the God of the Universe who was once my enemy as my loving Heavenly Father. It’s having my sins forgiven through Christ’s blood and communion with God by His Spirit. It’s living hope for this broken world and the promise of restoration. And, oh yeah, I have an eternal inheritance that no man, demon, or trial can EVER snatch away from me.
Now that is a religion and relationship worth pursuing religiously.
1 For the nit-picky smart alecks who appeal to the original Greek, θρησκεία in this passage is translated by the NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, KJV, CSB, and NET as ‘religious.’ If you think you know better than all of the scholars and their dozens of PhDs on each of those translation committees, then you have a bigger problem.
2 Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 2003.
3 Imagine if a Muslim told you that about Islam!
4 Just for kicks, I like this quote by Jonathan Edwards from Religious Affections: “He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion.”